As I mentioned in my introduction, the family interview plays a significant role in how the service is designed, which music is selected, what readings will be read. It sometimes happens that when reviewing an obituary, after having been briefed by the funeral director, and even after the initial family interview, later contacts with family members prior to the service can significantly change my approach to the homily.
In this particular case, I was convince that I had the perfect readings for the service…until I had further conversations with the family and out of the blue, a family member mentions two passages that change everything. Picking up on this, I changed course to include those readings in the service.
Listening carefully is a principal skill for any spiritual care provider but it is especially important to the bereavement chaplain. This is a case in point. While my readings would have served the purpose, listening to a family member provided information that would bring the homily and its message closer to home. The family member mentioned the passages only in passing but their mention had to come from somewhere deep. That’s point number one. Secondly, the fact that a family member could be brought into relation with the readings presented at the service made the readings even more special and their message in the homily even more relevant. Thirdly, but not by way of limitation or exhaustiveness, by including those readings in the service and by referring to them in the homily, the message was brought closer to the family than if I, a relative stranger, had chosen readings simply to get my points across.
In this situation, the family was very sharing and open. They were very hands-on and participated joyfully in the rituals. They took ownership of the service. That was perfectly fine and just the way it should have been.
Memorial Liturgy for
God loves humility over self–righteousness
Delivered on May 3, 2015
Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], M.Div.
After having spoken with Victor on Thursday, I was certain I had the perfect Gospel reading for today: Luke 18, you know, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. Why? Because what stuck in my head then was that Victor mentioned C. was Catholic but not really into the religion thing, she was more spiritual. And in the course of our conversation, I learned that she was a remarkably gifted but humble person. That made me think of Luke’s flashy hypocritical Pharisee in his fine Sabbath robes, in his prominent visible place in the temple, praying loudly and fervently so that the world would know he was righteous — more accurately self – righteous — so self – satisfied that he was not like the rest of the world. And then we have the ordinary publican, off the side, in dialogue with his God, knowing his sinfulness but knowing, in his humility, that God heard his prayers, and would be merciful. The ordinary becomes the extraordinary in the blink of the eye; “for every one that exalteth herself shall be humbled; but she that humbles herself shall be exalted.” [Luke 14:11]. Perfect, I thought.
But then, when I spoke with Linda, she happened to mention two texts: Psalm 121 and John 14. That was extraordinary, I thought, when I recalled the very first line of John 14: “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” And the assurance of Ps 121 that “The Lord will guard you from all evil.” In other words, don’t look at each other with anxiety, concern, and sorrow. Christ in that Gospel promises to comfort the suffering, us. We are not deserted; in that Gospel, Christ promises to return for us and to take us home. Christ promises us that our Father’s house has many mansions, many rooms. There’s plenty of room for everyone in his or her individuality. All we have to do is trust in His promise, have faith. After all faith means trust. Christ tells us he is going ahead to prepare our place in the dwelling made for us with God’s own hands, just as Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians: “While we are in this body we yearn to be clothed in our heavenly body, a dwelling not made with hands but eternal.”
The very message in John’s Gospel is foretold in our first reading from the prophet Isaiah, who teaches that the Lord has promised us that “My love shall never fall away from you nor my covenant of peace” depart from you. Again in Ps 121 we are promised that “The Lord will guard you from all evil…The Lord will guard your coming and going both now and forever.” If that doesn’t dispel our anxiety, our concern, our sorrow what will?
Our third reading from Romans poses the rhetorical question “What will separate us from the love of God? Will anguish, distress, persecution, loss, grief? And we receive the assurance that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Even that touching poem, God’s Garden, read so sensitively by Corie is almost scriptural in its statements: God has a spot for us in his garden, when we’re tired and the going get’s too rough in this life. God wraps his loving arms around us and lifts us to rest because He knows our suffering, our pain. We are comforted when He closes our world-weary eyes and assures us that we will have peace. He calls us home, to the house he made for us with his Divine hands. That poem couldn’t have been a better fit for today. Don’t you hear John 14 calling out to you in that poem? Thank you, Corie, that was an inspired choice.
Corie’s poem tells us also that God’s garden is very beautiful because he takes only the best. So we have to wonder, “Who?, What’s the ‘best?’”
OOPS! Do I see some worried faces out there?
Simple Extraordinary Ordinariness
Look around yourself now at these rooms right here. Any other day they are ordinary rooms in an ordinary building. But how many times over the years have they been transformed into extraordinary sacred spaces when loved ones and mourners come together, as we have today, to celebrate the life of an ordinary person who has become in a flash extraordinary.
Yes, indeed, many of the persons who have been mourned and celebrated in this very room were ordinary people — and I regret to say many of you wouldn’t have noticed if you tripped over them — but for a day or two they were transformed into extraordinary people through the mystery of their lives and deaths. If you think about that it’s pretty ordinary but it’s actually really extraordinary.
But when you think about it, it seems that’s the way God likes us; God likes us to be ordinary, gives us the freedom to be extraordinary using the gifts God provides each and every one of us, if we choose to accept and not deny them.
And so our lives are like personal “advents” — times of preparation and expectation — during which we spend our time preparing in the expectation of becoming extraordinary — if everything goes well.
Back to our third reading today that teaches us that nothing can separate us from God’s love. In that reading St Paul teaches that all things work for the good for those who don’t deny God, those who are called and respond to serve His purpose. In other words, God set out from the very start to shape the lives of those who love Him, and He stays with them to the end, gloriously completing what He started. With God on our side like that how can we possibly lose? Absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because we are embraced by the extraordinary — Christ’s love for us.
But most people are hopelessly ordinary and won’t strive to go the extra mile to become extraordinary and accept the invitation God extends to us all. Some might be afraid of being pigeonholed by neighbors as bizarre or countercultural if they live a Christian life, if they dare to be “extraordinary.” Some just love themselves or their gadgets more than God. Some are simply confused by the world. But being “extraordinary” in a Gospel way simply ‘fits” with what it means to be simply, ordinarily human. It represents, in fact, the fulfillment of what human existence ought to be — simple extraordinary ordinariness. There’s a lot of content in those three words if you give them a moment of thought.
In today’s culture Christlike service may even be considered to be a bit odd. But service in and to the Church — not the institutional one—, I mean service to our brothers and sisters, the mystical body of Christ, means to have such self – esteem and self – respect, such humility as to be able accept family, friends and others as they are in their imperfection and on their own personal life pilgrimages. But first we have to accept our own imperfections. Any attitude of judgment or condescension is contrary to the spirit of the Gospel. If we take our Catholic, our Christian faith very seriously, simply by being who we are, by being our authentic selves, we become extraordinary.
It seems everything about being Christian today is, from the very outset, countercultural: Being authentic and available to others, being simple, non – judgmental in today’s world, is a bit odd, a bit bizarre, unless you have the self – respect, the courage, the simple goodness to be extraordinary as C. did. C. accepted the challenge of today and became extraordinary.
All of this means that we sometimes find ourselves walking a fine line. The effort to be faithful Christian disciples does not make us inherently “better” than anyone else. It does not give us license to judge the moral or spiritual condition of others or to assume an attitude of spiritual superiority. The Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is present and active in the life of every person — practicing and non – practicing, Christian and non–Christian — in ways known only to God (Gaudium et spes, n. 22). I must confess to you that I have met some individuals who don’t practice “religion” as such, they don’t go to church, but whose personal goodness and love for others has put me to shame. At the same time, the Gospel does summon us to allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn within us. Jesus challenges us to grow in our commitment to follow him in ways that make a real difference in the way we live. He reminds us that fidelity to the mission that He entrusts to us will not always be easy; we all know it was not made easy for Him.
Living the Paschal Mystery of Death & Life — An Extraordinary Promise
We’re still in the Easter season and will be for several more weeks; Holy Week and the suffering and death of our Lord was just a couple of weeks ago, the great feast of the Resurrection just barely two or three weeks ago. In this time between the Resurrection and the Pentecost the Christ still walks among us, but do we recognize Him? We read in Holy Scripture that those closest to him didn’t recognize him even when He was right in front of them. But He is and will always be among us if we make some space for Him.
He invites us to pray to the Holy Spirit for the gift of courage when we have to stand alone in order to be faithful to the Gospel. That gift of courage can take us from being ordinary to being extraordinary. Yes, it takes personal strength, courage, and self – awareness to be extraordinary in today’s world, as anyone who knew C. can confirm that fact.
It seems so appropriate that an extraordinary person like C. should have provided us with an extraordinary opportunity to reflect on what this extraordinary time of the year means to us as ordinary people.
It seems that it is our ordinariness that especially appeals to God. The meaning and legacy C. leaves in her life is also the message of the Paschal mystery of death and life eternal, of Resurrection; it is a message that tells us that God wants to be loved by us in all of our ordinariness with all its frailties and vulnerabilities. Ours is the story of ordinary people who become extraordinary, and the mystery of Easter gives special meaning to what is ordinary and unspectacular — a simple, ordinary preacher from Nazareth is persecuted, betrayed, condemned, executed, dies and is buried; BIG DEAL! — and then the extraordinary happens, the empty tomb is discovered, the promise fulfilled. It’s the mystery of transformation, transfiguration where the ordinary and non-spectacular becomes Spielberg extraordinary! What makes it meaningful and special is that this is our story too but we have to accept the gift of courage to live in communion with God, with and in the Divine love that is offered to us, and not in communion with the false self, the ego, with and in ourselves and our gadgets and illusions. This is exactly what C. did in living, not flashing, her inner spirituality; she became simply, ordinarily, extraordinary.
Living the Cross
We often think of “a cross to bear” meaning a burden, suffering. We sometimes forget the meaning of the Cross because the Church in its preaching is constantly driving home the point of suffering, of bearing suffering, that this world is just constant suffering. That’s so wrong!
This world is an awesome thing. God created it out of love and made it a gift to share with us, not a place to be shunned and demeaned for the sake of another world we know absolutely nothing about. This world is the product of Divine Love shared with us.
The metaphor, the lesson, the meaning of the Cross as a symbol, as a sacrament must be thought of in more positive terms, terms we can relate to in our daily lives. Relationship and the love that cements that relationship.
- was not ashamed of living the way of the cross: The Cross must in fact be firmly planted in good solid ground, in the clay from which we were fashioned and to which we must some day return. The Cross points down and up, up and down; down to humility and up to transcendence; up from humankind to the Divine. But the Cross also represents the Divine reaching down to us. It’s a two – way trip. The Cross has arms that point away from its center, from its center it points to the others, to you and to me, including us to relationship. Those arms, once we’re embraced by them, relate us in a [perichoretic] embrace of love, security, trust, community. It’s a cross of relationship.
Yes, it’s a C.–cross, if you’d like to stretch the metaphor a little. C. was humble and unafraid to show compassion and courageous enough not to judge; C., in her inner, personal religion, her spirituality, transcended, rose above so much of what is ego, and she did it with a unique flair for pure love, pure joy.
C.’s ordinariness, her imperfection, her humility made her into a safe harbor for many, incarnating the Gospel of Matthew [Mt 25], “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
And so we can imagine that C.–cross, her arms extending from her heart her spiritual core, out of herself to you, to others, in relationship and, those others were gently, compassionately, nonjudgmentally embraced by those gentle arms. If we reflect on what the Gospels teach us and what the Cross should mean to us as a sacrament, as a symbol, C. was and continues to be that embracing Cross.
So brothers and sisters, Easter and the symbol of the Cross indeed celebrate the meeting of the ordinary human and the extraordinary Divine, it is the reaching down of heaven touching earth, of God embracing us and we, reaching up, embracing God. The Christ child born in the manger brings us a message of great hope and joy, and the Resurrected Christ and the symbol of His Cross is the realization, the perfection of that great hope and joy. He came to heal the broken hearted, to feed the hungry, to find the lost, to bring light to the darkened world and to bring hope and love in our hearts. But didn’t C. do that as well? If the Christ-child born in the stable is not born in our manger hearts, and our lives remain empty tombs and we wander as lost souls in the vast cemetery we call the world, the extraordinary becomes meaningless, and our hope of becoming extraordinary is shattered. We don’t need to die; we’re already dead. We really should strive to become C.–crosses.
It’s All So Awesome
It’s the ego – ordinary in us that tends to make us feel secure if we have a new gadget, plenty of fun, a few moments of happy love, a merry meeting with friends, a flash – in – in – the – pan titillation but to the extraordinary person all that is illusion; she accepts her suffering, vulnerability, imperfection as meaningful opportunities to learn, to teach, to share, to live fully. Indeed, God gives us moments of security and ecstasy, some transient some real; or as C.S. Lewis notes “our Father in heaven refreshes us on the journey through life with some pleasant bed-and–breakfast stops, but he will not encourage us to mistake those bed – and – breakfasts for our true home.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain)
Finally, our readings today were quite short but their shared message is very deep and clear: They urge us not to deny God and not to deny each other but to love in and with God and in and with the other, just as C. did.
This is an invitation by none other than the God – man Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ, the ordinary man of Nazareth who became extraordinary in teaching the ordinary among us that we shall never be separated from God’s love, the Beatitudes confirm this. In plain language, Jesus is telling us: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on sterile, life-denying religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover real life, your true self. I’ll show you how to take a refreshing rest from the illusory world. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything too heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly, even cheerfully.”
On your way to becoming extraordinary recall that Psalm 19 teaches us to “[b]eware the ordinariness of life and its subconscious numbness, and take time to acknowledge and give the extraordinariness of God’s creation its due wonder. It declares His glory”. And no less a figure than John Calvin paraphrased those words when he wrote, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” If we take those words to heart in our lives, just as I believe C. did in her life, we too can experience the awe of love and be truly extraordinary in our ordinariness.
Now let’s take a few moments to meditate on those thoughts and on how C. lived them.
May her memory be eternal!
Please click Homily for CAB to download a pdf copy of this homily.